Louis; PhD, MD, Custodial Artist.
A couple of soon-to-be new parents, the woman in labor, stumbled past Louis (That’s lew-iss but it’s okay, a lot of people get it wrong) as he stepped from Wayside hospital. They begged his pardon, slipped and slid past for the doors in the cold snow. Louis was scared the mother would fall butt-first up the icy steps, so “elsewhere” was her attention focused. As large as her belly was, she’d have taken her poor husband along with her for the trip. Louis even suspected, that if she fell just right, the baby would’ve popped right out of her, slid down the icy steps into the heel of his boot.
Fortunately for all parties, she kept her balance, left a trail of foggy breath from those “birth-giving” spurts she’d taken– you know the ones: he-who, he-who, he-who. There was just enough time for him to wish them luck before the automatic doors slid closed on the father’s backward, half-wave. Louis shrugged to himself, walked on through the snow, and ’round the corner to the dumpsters for his noon-time cigarette.
Louis (one last time, lew… iss) Sacker, forty-three, was a master– nay, grand orator– of the custodial arts at Wayside Memorial Hospital. Like any other hospital custodian, his job ranged from the mundane, to the gross. From mopping floors to cleaning toilets, Louis had put in his ten-thousand hours. Meanwhile, his down and off-time were spent in deep states of self-education. Over the years, these times had gathered him knowledge of everything from herbal medicines to anatomy. But Louis’ favorite subject was physics– that’s the study of forces and motions with lots of math and other stuff Louis liked. But it wasn’t the math he liked most about it, or even the interesting, sometimes daring experiments he’d read of. It was the uses of physics he liked most to know; how rockets flew, how planets orbited, and why they didn’t fall right out of space on top of him.
His job at Wayside Memorial was just another one of these personal pursuits; a job that put him in better place to learn things his way. And since the jobs of doctors and nurses were always changing from new ideas, there was always something to learn.
He lit his cigarette, and billowed out smoke from beneath his thick, black mustache. He knew he shouldn’t smoke, but it was one’a the only bad habits he had left since he’d quit biting his fingernails to the nub. He took his due of suffering from the cold air that stung his lips, signaled the coming, January snowstorm. Even with as much as he loved his job and its chances to learn, he still hoped to return home before the storm hit. The weather man had said there’d be heavy snowfall for three or four days. It had already buried cities, trapped people in their homes, and would only get bigger. In Wayside, the houses were small, even easier to bury than usual– and this was being called the “largest blizzard in decades.” From the skin around Louis’ mustache, he felt it well-named.
As Louis stood beside the dumpsters to puff his stinky tobacco, he smiled to himself at the comparison of his big brain and his meager, little work. It wasn’t a bitter smile by any means, but rather, an amused one that one gets about oneself. He was a Doctor of physics, math, and science, and learned enough to know so, but only ever mopped floors and cleaned toilets. It was even a funny thing to others that knew him (Once they learned how deep his knowledge went.) ‘Course there were those that looked at him funny too. His odd appearance and arrangement of long side burns, beard, and pulled-back hair were repulsive to certain types. It was no matter, he felt, either he’d impress them with his way, or he’d have no need of them.
He squatted to put out the stinky cigarette in the snow, made sure the fire was gone, and the cigarette was good and wet, then threw it in the dumpster. His hands slid in his pockets as he bunched up his body for warmth against the wind and started for the hospital’s front doors. A peculiar scent smacked his large nostrils, stung worse than the icy air. It was like a mix of floor cleaners and car exhaust, almost the same smell from the time his truck’s engine had caught fire.
He followed his nose to the hospital’s emergency road and entrance way, the same place the couple’d stumbled past him along. He sniffed the air, traced the scent’s origin to the road’s center. Normally, everything about the entrance was inviting, friendly, even its smell. But this foul stink made his stomach rumble. He fine-tuned his sniffer downward as far his posture’d allow, like a floppy-eared hound-dog with its nose along the ground. Several wet spots along the entrance road steamed heat in the cold air.
It was odd– Or was it? This is where the ambulances rushed the sickest patients it, and the burning engine smell made sense if it’d leaked something. Maybe hot water? Maybe it’d mixed with something, caused that putrid stench? In any case, the odor was too strong for Louis’ sensitive beak. He was forced to rush back into the lobby, unable to stand it any longer. His stomach gave a final rumble as he jogged through the doors and took a deep whiff of the inviting smell.
He sniffed his way toward the tall reception desk where Ginny– the dimpled, red-haired receptionist waited to sign him back in.
She scribbled loud scratches on her plastic clip-board, “Snowin’ yet?”
“Not too bad yet,” he replied with a friendly smile.
Louis always smiled at Ginny for two reasons; it was polite, and he liked to see her smile back.
Even though there was something sad in her voice, she smiled back as usual, “Guess there’s no hope for me gettin’ home early then.”
The smile flickered with the start of a frown, so Louis smiled bigger, “I wouldn’t worry. Storm’ll hit tonight, but it won’ do nothin’ before the mornin’. You’ll get out ‘fore it does.”
He handed back the clip-board, and she took it, “See ya later, Lew.”
“You too. But if I don’t, good luck!”
Her smile followed him all the way to big hallway’s elevators, infected him ’til he reached the top-floor Maternity ward. He wondered for a moment how the young couple’d fared. They were at the beginning of a long road, and the more he thought of it, the longer it got. The wife and new-mother would be so tired by the end, she’d probably forget the time after a few days.
He headed along the wide hallways, adorned with lots of cutesy stickers and wall-hangings, passed the reception desk, and the six rooms between it and his tiny office to the left. If Louis was honest, and he always tried to be, it was more a closet than an office. Its size didn’t bother him though; it comfy, cozy. He stepped in as the door banged a mop and rolling bucket, shut it again to sidle behind the large desk that took up half the room. He flipped on the radio to its usual, low volume, sat down to kick up his feet and lift a book from the desk top.
For a moment he’d forgot to tell the nurses he was back, but as soon as he remembered, he picked up the phone. “Suze,” He said after a quick ring the echoed outside, “Back in if ya’ need me.”
She thanked him with a tired voice. They exchanged good-byes, and he hung up the phone to lifted his book another time and enjoy more down-time. It had been in large supply these last few days, and with the snowstorm on its way, it was likely to last even longer. He read with a certain, satisfied smile. It was more physics– some he knew, and some new to him; black holes, and parallel universes, and light waves and particles. Every word in the book was interesting, and Louis was content with being interested by them.
It only took a few hours for the young mother in the ward outside to enter the final stages of birth. As the only pregnant woman there, Louis could hear her shouts from his office across the quiet ward. He readied himself for the call, placed the finished-book on the table that his brain had gobbled up with growling hunger, and grabbed his mop and bucket. He set it on a cart with a yellow garbage bag and the peculiar bio-hazard symbol on it, and pushed it out into the hall.
He held the mop’s stick so the bucket wouldn’t jostle forward and slosh dirty water around the clean floors, wheeled it to the bathroom in the middle of the six rooms ahead. He went about his usual routine of rinsing the mop in the sink, refilling the bucket with water and a few drops of stinky floor-cleaner. The water frothed and foamed with suds, the sink’s tap too quiet to hear beneath the mother’s nearby shouts.
He glanced out the window over the toilet to keep his mind off her cries, and knew there was no doubt he’d been wrong when he’d spoke to Ginny earlier. The storm had only just begun to hit, and its heavy flakes had already piled up in the parking lot outside. He watched a small pile form in the corner of the window, judged how long it took to get to a certain height. It piled up so fast, even Wayside’s plows wouldn’t be able to keep off.
Ginny had been right, the hospital would be snowed in with all the patients and workers stuck there. Louis didn’t mind, but he wished he’d brought another book. He felt better when he thought of Ginny’s smile. It infected him again, and he plunged the mop into the foamy water. A cry of pain tore through the air like paper ripped in half. Louis’ ears told him it was from the mother’s room, but it wasn’t her pain, it was someone else’s; clearly a man’s.
Perhaps the new mother had squeezed the new father’s hand especially tight. But it came again, and Louis was certain that wasn’t the case. This voice was more like Doc Hawkins’, deep and old despit the high yelp. He’d heard it at the same volume lots’a times when he was mad, but this was a shout of pain, Louis was sure of it.
For a moment, Louis thought he should run and help, suddenly remembered he worked in a hospital. This was the only place in all the world where his skills in medicine were surpassed by the people around him. He shook his head, pulled the mop from the bucket to slap it on the bathroom floor in the furthest corner by the toilet. It made long, wet streaks from side to side that shined with the overhead lights.
Doc cried out again. Louis’ nerves were rattled. He couldn’t help it, he had to check in on Doc Hawkins. They were too good of friends for Louis not to. He slapped the mop back into the bucket, jogged from the bathroom for the one, closed door on the ward. Doc’s cries came louder now, repeated every few seconds. Louis hurried into the door, stopped in his path at the scene in the room.
Doc Hawkins was knelt room’s middle, dressed in his blue scrubs, face-mask, and head-cap. He clutched one hand with the other, whimpered like a wounded dog. The nurses had frozen alongside the mother, her legs up on the bed. They stared, horrified by smoke that rose from burns on Doc’s hands. The young wife fought her labor-pains with a purple and white face, the husband at her side in a constant stream of apologies.
Louis saw smoke, but no fire: It had to be a chemical that had caused it. He grab for a bottle of vinegar on his cart, rushed forward.
He popped off the lid, “Hold out yer’ hand’s, Doc!”
Doc couldn’t hear him, the pain was too bad. Louis did the only thing he could; dumped the bottle over Doc’s arm and hand until it was nearly empty. Doc Hawkins fell backward on the floor, the smoke gone, but his hand red and burned. He bent forward over Doc, pinched his cheeks and felt his pulse. For the most part he’d be okay, but his hands would be scarred.
He lifted Doc’s top half, “Nurses, I need some help ‘ere.” No-one moved. “Ladies, please!”
They snapped from their stupor, grabbed his legs to carry him to a chair in the room, lay him over it. The poor young woman still screamed, forced through birth as the attention shifted to Doc. The nurses checked him as Louis had, bandaged his hands over the mother’s shrieks.
Louis shouted, “What happened here?”
One nurse shrugged. The other shook her head, speechless. He looked to the new mother, her face more purple than ever; then the new father, whom stared at the ground in shame. Louis did the math, summed up that the mother must’ve caused it somehow..
But how? No woman could do that, ‘n why would she?
He thought of great practical jokes and jests of women whose insides were pure evil, like acid to the skin. But this, and other stories like it, were pure fiction– not real– and this was reality, real-life. The mother’s cries went silent, but her heavy breaths continued between loud grunts and groans. She was clearly ready to bring her baby into the world, but how’d that explain Doc’s hands? If she’d done this, why, and how?
Louis had a wild thought, so wild it almost made him laugh: maybe she wasn’t human, but a humanoid— something that looked human but wasn’t. The thought was wild, but somehow appropriate, and the only explanation that made sense to Louis. This beautiful young woman, a young, brown-haired, average human who didn’t look more than thirty, wasn’t actually a human.
Though it was far-fetched– outright unbelievable, even– Louis considered life outside of Earth as a mathematical given. Even the thought of extra-terrestrial life living quietly among them didn’t surprise him entirely, but it was stretch. It took a lot of imagination that lots of people his age didn’t have left, to even think of it. Fortunately for him, he did have some left, but never in a million thoughts or years had he considered they’d appear human in any respect.
He looked the young couple over, studied every line and curve of their faces and bodies. It had to be trickery, like some kind of advanced magician. Louis blinked, startled when the woman shrieked again. She was ready to finish the birth. Everything Louis knew about babies being born made him sure of it. And it wasn’t gonna’ wait for him or anyone else to accept crazy theories. The poor mother needed help, and human or not, she deserved it.
He rushed to his cart, pulled out a few pairs of acid-resistant gloves. They would’ve saved Doc’s hands earlier, but he’d have never known to use ’em. Louis always had a pair in his cart for cleaning dangerous spills, and they’d earned their weight in gold more times then Louis could count.
He pulled his gloves on, passed pairs to the nurses, “It’ll protect ‘ya. Trust me.”
An hour passed in screams and shouts as Louis and the nurses coached the mother to squeeze her baby out. Their gloves fought a good fight against the acidic body fluids, held up with nary a scratch. It was late in the evening when the child was finally freed of its mother’s womb and cleaned off to be wrapped in a blanket.
When the nurses passed the human baby to its mother, it was a perfect, newborn boy– or at least, looked like one. The mother succumbed to exhaustion, fell asleep with the child in her arms. The father took him as Louis and the nurses cleaned the room with their special gloves and other special cleaners. They were each too confused to talk, instead let the ward return to its empty silence.
When Louis finally finished, he approached the father with a small smile. He looked up from his son’s eyes to Louis’. A strange glimmer of light appeared in them, as though love and awe had mixed with something that scared him. The father stammered and stuttered a “thank you,” handed the sleepy baby over to a nurse who placed it in a cart. The father asked Louis to follow him from the room, headed for the elevator with Louis’ curiosity trailing behind him.
He stepped into the elevator and a jumble of words fell out of his mouth. The new father chuckled, and Louis took a deep breath to start over, “Where have you come from?”
The man’s quiet mix of fear and other things clung to his hushed words, “Far from here. Your people designate the planet only with numbers, and to us it’s merely called home.”
The elevator’s doors opened in the empty lobby, and Louis saw that Ginny was the only person left in the whole place. Outside, snow had piled high, already trapped the people in the hospital. He gave a small smile and nod to Ginny, her own smile already there from his sudden appearance.
Louis continued with the father down a long hallway past the reception desk. Louis whispered so he wouldn’t be heard, “So, why are you here?”
The father’s eye twitched with sadness, “There’s much to our world we wished to escape– to keep our child safe, and raise them well without fear of wars or pain from faith or otherwise.”
“How do you mean?” Louis asked quietly.
The father angled around another door for the large, empty cafeteria ahead, “Our people always fight one another. They are unhappy. It’s easy for a child of our kind to become the same way. We wish only love and happiness for our children, so we decided leave, hide away from it.”
“And you chose here?” Louis asked, rather sarcastically.
He apologized promptly for his tone, but the man laughed, “Do not apologize, friend. I understand your humor. But you must believe me when I say; even with its problems, your species is much safer and happier than mine.”
“I see,” Louis said, though really he had heard and not seen. In either case, he understood their reasons for coming, but continued to question it. “But what about your child’s future? Won’t he wish to have a wife and a child of his own one day?”
“And what happens then? Does he have to go home?”
The father smiled, “Now friend, I never said my wife and I are the only of our kind here.”
Louis’ eyes gleamed with excitement, “There are more of you?”
“Many more. So many, in fact, we’ve begun to lose count.”
The father procured sustenance from a vending machine, as he told more of his world and its ways. Many of their people had left home for Earth. Like he and his wife, they were refugees that had come to hide from their terrible world and seek happiness. They chose Earth because, as fortune would have it, the people that fought on their world would never think to go there. The refugees could then live peacefully, pursue their dreams of happiness, family, or otherwise without fear.
The father explained that learning of his true nature was never intended, “We knew our child’s birth was inevitable. It is why we chose Wayside: your town is small, your hospital smaller still. We knew the time would come where we would have to reveal ourselves to a select few, and hoped it would go well. Apart from the Doctor’s wounds, it has. We’re very sorry he’s been injured. He’s a wonderful man, very helpful. Unfortunately, it seems our bodies are so unlike yours that parts are dangerous to you.”
“But you mean us no harm right?” Louis asked carefully.
The father smiled wide, “Of course not, friend.”
The truth was written in the strange man’s face– or what looked like a face, and that was good enough for Louis, “Well, Doc’ll recover. But.. how d’you hide yourselves?”
The father explained, “We can shape-shift parts of our form, and what we cannot hide is protected by a natural defense from our minds that fills in the gaps. This is our real form.”
He touched Louis’ temple and was instantly changed. The man was almost orange, with a long, curvy human-like form beneath an oblong face and head. His eyes were like giant, black-metal eggs with glows of yellow at their center. One hand kept a finger at Louis temple as the other waved at him with its fingers and palm twice as long and stretched as Louis’ own. The other hand left his temple, and the shape morphed back to the man he’d seen before.
Louis was alight with joy, “But your child! How’d he look different?”
“Our children are sentient at the moment their birth begins, and are born with all of the intelligence and knowledge of their parents. He knew to change himself before he ever entered the world.”
It was the perfect image of life, Louis thought, but he spoke his fears aloud, “But soon others will know! There will be more births, right?”
The father nodded, “Yes, of course. They will be handled in much the same way as this– or perhaps better, I hope. We are fortunate enough as a species to have been gifted with foresight. That is, we can see a short way into the future, enough to know if there will be problems.”
Louis face glowed excitement and happiness, “Really?”
The man gave a nod, “My wife and I knew that bumping into you as we walked in would help us later on. Otherwise, more people may have been injured. The others here respect you though, and you can explain to them that we mean no harm.”
Louis was humbled at his importance, promised to do everything he could to keep them safe.
And in time, so it went. The two talked more, finished their snacks, and returned to the mother’s side. Questions began then, and Louis lined up the nurses beside the doctor– who was now awake– to answer them as they came. At first, they refused to believe him, but the new parents revealed the family to them and Louis explained what he’d been told, convinced them the family meant no harm. A curiously giddy joy spread through-out the room. Even Doc, with his bandaged hands, was alight that he’d delivered the first alien baby on Earth.
They agreed to keep the family’s secret, to protect them until they were ready to reveal themselves to the world, then celebrated the birth into the night. Life returned to normal not long afterward– or at least as normal as it could be after that night. A week before it was one year since the birth, Louis stepped to the door of his home. He blew Ginny a kiss good-bye, shut the door, and checked the mail before he headed off to start the night shift. He found an envelope with no return address, but a picture inside of a light-haired, baby-boy, with words scribbled on the back: Louis “Doc” Smith Invites you to his 1st Birthday.
Louis smiled at the scribbles beneath that told the date, time, and location, and requested an RSVP with a phone number beside it. He skipped to his truck, ready to call the number as soon as he got to work. It was, after all, the first birthday of the first alien child born on Planet Earth.
For Erin: Happy Birthday